For many fans of television history, I Love Lucy is one of the greatest TV shows ever aired on television. The classic comedy ran from 1951 until 1957, making a huge national star out of Lucille Ball, and cementing her place as a cultural icon, as well as a champion for women in the entertainment industry.
While Ball was undeniably the star of I Love Lucy, she was supported in her efforts by her husband, bandleader, and musician Desi Arnaz. As well as two character actors, William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who played Fred and Ethel Mertz.
For many fans, it might be impossible to imagine the show without their contributions. Still, there was a time when Ball had to be seriously convinced that Vance could pull off the character of Ethel Mertz.
The stars of ‘I Love Lucy’
By the time she began starring in I Love Lucy, Ball had been a presence in Hollywood for over a decade.
She had appeared in everything from comedies to dramas, but while she was undoubtedly beautiful, she had failed to find the role that really managed to push her to the top. She viewed I Love Lucy as the chance to do something she loved, all while working with her husband, Desi Arnaz.
In addition to Arnaz, Ball worked closely with Frawley, a veteran character actor. Frawley played Fred Mertz, a neighbor and good friend to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo.
Vivian Vance played Ethel Mertz in ‘I Love Lucy’
Fred’s wife, Ethel Mertz, was played by Vance, a stage actor who was able to run the gamut of emotions, from exasperation to over-the-top hilarity.
Vance was born in Kansas in 1909. Raised in a somewhat restrictive family, Vance fell in love with acting as a child and appeared in a variety of stage productions as a young woman.
Eventually, Vance moved to New York City to pursue higher-profile roles. When Vance landed the part of Ethel Mertz in I Love Lucy, it changed the course of her career.
Fans loved Vance as Ethel, and totally believed her in the role. Vance received praise from critics for her work in the series as well, eventually becoming the first actress to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress.
Still, when she was initially cast as Ethel, Vance had a hard time convincing Ball that she could play the role of dumpy, matronly Ethel Mertz.
Vivian Vance had to convince Lucille Ball that she could play Ethel
According to pop culture expert and historian Geoffrey Mark, Vance didn’t impress Lucille Ball upon their first meeting.
“She wasn’t Ethel Mertz. She wasn’t anything like Ethel Mertz, which is why Miss Ball didn’t want her in the role at first,” Mark detailed. “Ms. Ball made an entrance on the first day of rehearsal and she walks to Vivian and says, ‘Hello, dear. What are you here to read for?’
And Vivian said, ‘What do you mean, read for?’ I’ve been hired to play Ethel Mertz.’ Ms. Ball said, ‘You can’t play Ethel. You’re my age. You have the same color hair. You have an attractive figure. You’re pretty.’ Vivian was smart.”
Mark described how Vance underwent a physical transformation in order to play Ethel, wearing clothes that were ill-fitting to make her look dumpy and fixing her hair in an unflattering style. By the time the show began airing on television, Vance had become Ethel.
In the end, she proved that she was a capable enough actor to play Ethel to perfection, convincing not only Ball, but the rest of the world as well.